Ring 16 Breslau (now: Rynek 16 Wroclaw), the business premises of Norbert Elias' father, a clothing workshop with about thirty employees who made clothes for the wholesale trade using small machines (photo: B.D. Sobiecki).
(Video by The Norbert Elias Foundation)
Who was Norbert Elias?
Norbert Elias (1897-1990) was a contemporary and friend of Karl Mannheim. Elias became successful only after he reached retirement age. His books were not allowed to be published in Germany and Austria during the war years and he could not find a translator.
Elias was a German Jew. "I said I wanted to be a professor at university, and then a classmate said, 'That career was cut off at your birth!' Great laughter from the whole class, and from the teacher."
Elias felt safe, at home. "My father and mother would have done anything for me; when I was sick - and I was sick very often - every possible care was given to me: I felt completely protected. I certainly believe that I owe my later endurance to that, when I wrote my books, that no one noticed; I was able to cope with that because of the great sense of security I had had as a child."
"I hated the emperor and everything he stood for! I did when I was very young. It disgusted me, the thought of having to bow to that man; I hated the idea of there being someone who could require me to be submissive."
The nationalists in Germany were anti-Semites. However, Elias was certainly proud of the German cultural tradition. "I identified strongly with the German classic age: Goethe, Schiller, Kant, those were the great men of my life."
"A young soldier wrote: "You can be proud of us, because later you will say that you have won in these historic days. For we will win, there is no doubt about it," and so on - and two days later he was dead. For it was a terrible slaughter of young people, those early days of the war, and it was all due to huge military errors of judgment, both of the French and the German General Staff.
Both sides were carried away by their own enthusiasm: they both had in mind a quick attack followed by a quick victory. In the first days of the war they clashed, with great loss of life, and then the front became bogged down. The firepower on both sides was too great for a breakthrough.
I actually think that more should be written about the erroneous judgments that generals made from their mentality. Soldiers like Ludendorff and Hindenburg lead their people, lose the war, and then the people have to bear the consequences, while they just live on as if it wasn't their fault. Hindenburg, Hitler, the Emperor - they all make the biggest mistakes, for all to see, and the worst that can happen is that they kill themselves! And their people are left with all the misery. That could happen again today. They have the blinkers of their profession on; I have, even in my own profession, a contempt for people who allow their vision to be clouded by their own wishes."
The Civilizing Process
Elias is best known for The Civilizing Process, his research into the development of social standards, which showed that the personality structure became more civilized as a result of increasingly complex social interweaving, including the monopoly of violence of new states and an ever-increasing division of labor whereby people increasingly become dependent on each other. This civilizing process is an unplanned result of social interweaving (figuration) processes that cannot simply be adjusted. There is a social pressure (Fremdzwang) to exert self-compulsion (Selbstzwang): emotional self-control, rational planning, being ashamed, or finding certain behaviors painful.
Contrary to popular belief, the civilizing process for Elias is not purely positive; it also creates insincerity, a repression of feelings and a lack of communication options. People steer their "drift lives" with an increasingly keen eye for situational demands. They hold back the venting of their emotions and display rational and disciplined behaviour, because they consider long-term consequences. Whenever the norms are applied more loosely, this is done in a controlled manner: "The controlled discontrolling of controls". Shame-causing acts are handled backstage as much as possible. Further, Elias writes that religion does not drive the civilizing process, but follows it (Van Heerikhuizen, 2019).
According to Elias' theory of civilization, societies go through a process of civilization, in which they become more organized and sophisticated, developing a more complex division of labor, greater social stratification, and more centralized systems of power and authority. Social unrest, political instability, economic collapse, or environmental disasters can lead to decivilization, a process of degeneration or social decay, in which a society becomes less complex, hierarchical, and differentiated. Societies undergoing significant social and economic change, or facing challenges that threaten their long-term stability and prosperity, may experience dyscivilization, with characteristics such as violence, poverty, inequality and environmental degradation.
The influence of Max Weber in Elias' work
Elias's work must be read against the background of Weber's views of Western history as a process of rationalization. Elias draws heavily from Weber's conception of the state as an institution with a monopoly on violence. His ideas about state formation in Europe are a continuation of Weber's comparative historical-sociological investigations. But especially Weber's theory of rationalization has been of capital importance to Elias - both to build on and to counter. Among other things, Weber understood rationalization as an increase in self-control, a systematic attempt to control one's own and others' actions and the future, and an increase in a scientific attitude. These are also aspects of what Elias understands by the civilizing process. However, while Weber believed that beliefs are at the basis of the rationalization of everyday life, Elias emphasizes the social bonds, the increasing social interweaving of individuals and groups, in his explanation of civilization (Weyns, 2017).
A characterization of the scholar Elias
In his Elias biography, Robert van Krieken writes, that, against the tide of sociological thought, Elias insisted on historical analysis and a concern for focused social development. He maintained a link between sociology and psychology and history, while the discipline became increasingly isolated and fragmented. He mounted a powerful argument against individualism, in favor of a self-discipline that resonates with the necessities of life as part of a group, during a period when concepts such as "emancipation" and "freedom" were trending in social science. He argued for the importance of transcending the boundaries of nation-states and thinking about terms of "humanity as a whole" long before social scientists began to use the term "globalization." His conceptualization of history in terms of long-term processes challenges the temporal divisions that plague the social sciences, especially those between 'tradition' and 'modernity', and subjects the self-assessment of 'modern' self to critical analysis. He preferred to describe us today as 'late barbarians' who lived at the end of the Middle Ages and, like Bruno Latour, Elias thought that 'we have never been modern', let alone have become postmodern (Van Krieken,1998).
Van Krieken describes five interrelated principles that underlie Elias's approach to sociology:
1. Although societies are made up of people who act intentionally, the result of the combination of human actions is usually unplanned and unintentional. Sociologists should analyze and explain the mechanics of this transformation of intentional human action into unintended patterns of social life, which necessarily take place over longer or shorter periods of time.
2. Individuals can only be understood in their interdependencies with each other, as part of networks of social relations. We are social to the core, existing only in and through our relationships with others. The study of processes of social development and transformation is necessarily linked to the analysis of processes of psychological development and transformation, the changes in personality structures or habitus that accompany and contribute to social changes.
3. Human social life must be understood in terms of relationships rather than states. For example, balances of power between individuals and social units are ever-changing.
4. Human societies can only be understood as consisting of long-term processes of development and change, rather than as timeless states or conditions. Sociology should deal with long-term social processes in order to understand current social relationships and structures.
5. Sociological thinking is constantly moving between a position of social and emotional engagement with the subjects of study, and a position of detachment from them. Sociologists are part of their object of scientific study (interdependent people), and thus cannot escape involvement in their own research and theory building. Social scientific knowledge develops within the society of which it is a part, and not separately from it. At the same time, however, this involvement is often a barrier to an adequate understanding of social life. Sociologists should be mythbusters, especially when they uncover the complexities of human interrelationships.
From the application of these principles, ideas emerged, like the importance of state building in analyzing social development; a conception of science as a social institution; an emphasis on the relationship between social change and psychological development; an interdisciplinary orientation towards the social sciences, in which sociology, psychology and history are linked; and an understanding of power relations as organized around the distinction between established and outsider groups.
Elias hated the concealment of partisan thinking and wanted to create a picture of society that was not ideological. "I consider it my task to show that people can lead meaningful lives without religion. We depend on each other. I think it is wrong to condemn a group of people as a whole. I am not going to judge an entire nation, in the second or third generation, because of the Nazi era."
Elias saw it as a main objective of sociology to take the individual out of his isolation in thinking and to place him or her as an individual in a chain of successive generations, in a chronological order. His experiences during the war and the inflationary period also made him aware of "the relative powerlessness of the individual in the social system, and with it also of the peculiar esoteric character of the basic philosophical assumptions to which the image of the omnipotence of thought belongs."
Application to the management of safety
Elias indicated that social processes and patterns are shaped not only by local and immediate factors, but also by the broader historical and cultural context in which they occur. Individuals are constrained by the norms, values, and expectations of their social group or community, and by the power dynamics and relationships that exist within those groups.
For example, in the context of construction projects involving thousands of self-employed foreign workers, the norms and expectations of their home country, the power dynamics within the construction project, and the cultural values and beliefs of the host country all come into play. Understanding these social and cultural influences can be important for effectively managing safety and fostering a positive work culture in construction projects. Think of knowing and coordinating the risks in the planned work and the working method used. Ensuring mutual respect and understanding between all employees on the project requires attention.
Elias, N., Heerma van Voss, A.J., van Stolk, A. (1987), The history of Norbert Elias, Amsterdam: Meulenhoff.
Van Heerikhuizen, B. (2019), Norbert Elias, Sociologische Theorie, Lecture at University of Amsterdam.
Van Krieken, R. (1998), Norbert Elias, London: Routledge.
Weyns, W. (2017), Inleiding tot de sociale wetenschappen, Antwerpen: Universiteit Antwerpen.
Below you can see a video, about the importance of Elias for Sociology, from what I think is a great online course from the University of Amsterdam on classical sociology.
Finally, here's a video clip of the ZDF (Second German Television channel) documentary "Zeugen des Jahrhunderrs" (Witnesses of the Century) with Norbert Elias, who was then 92 years old. In addition to his own life experiences, he cites Freud's psychoanalytic theory as having had an influence on his own theory.